Books

Award-winning Derry author Sue Divin's latest young adult novel delves into the legacy of The Troubles

Jenny Lee chats to Derry author Sue Divin's about her latest novel, a gritty, contemporary young adult quest, set in the legacy of the Troubles in Derry and Armagh

Sue Divin is a Derry-based writer and peace worker, originally from Armagh

"THE good things can't be forced - love, hope, reconciliation. Thirty years of war and people think peace can be built overnight? Not everything heals so quickly."

These poignant words are contained in Derry-based author Sue Divin's new novel, which delves into the transgenerational impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland upon three generations of women.

Laced with dry wit, emotion and self-deprecating humour, Truth Be Told doesn't shy away from tough subjects - paramilitary punishment shootings, suicide, the legalisation of same-sex relationships, abortion and even gay conversion therapy.

Set against the backdrop of events in Northern Ireland in autumn 2019, it tells the story of two teenage girls who live on opposite sides of the political divide and who apparently couldn't be more different.

Tara has been raised a Catholic by her mam and nan in Derry city; Faith lives in rural Armagh with her strict evangelical Protestant parents.

But when they come face-to-face with each other during a cross-community residential, they are shocked to discover they look almost identical. And in searching for the truth about their own identities, the teenagers uncover a past that undermines everything they've ever known.

The hallmark of Divin's writing is that she writes in "a real context". "This one was set in autumn 2019 when there was a lot of stuff going on - the impact of Brexit and the lack of a Stormont government for almost three years and the debates over LGBT rights, women's rights and the pension for victims and survivors," she says.

"The impact of Stormont's collapse has been glossed over but can still be seen in people's lives today in terms of many of the health, education and poverty issues we are facing."

A theme of forgiveness runs throughout Truth Be Told on a personal as well as historical, religious and community levels.

"This parallels the Northern Ireland politicians' difficulty in dealing with the past and forgiving each other," adds Divin, who will be speaking at the Belfast Book Festival in June.

With a Master's in Peace and Conflict Studies, Armagh-born Divin combines her writing with a day job in community relations and youth work in Derry.

She has used this experience of leading projects on reconciliation and diversity to inform her writing.

"I wanted to address the complexities of issues we have seen here over recent years. I also wanted to take on a couple of personal challenges in this novel," she explains.

"The first was writing strong female characters, and obviously I have two of them as the lead protagonists.

"Secondly I wanted to tell a story that didn't fit the dominant narrative of here. Although the book is about these two girls who look alike and go on a journey to find their parentage, it also deals with a lot of the grey areas in our past conflict and the subsequent transgenerational trauma."

In Truth Be Told Divin also references how men here bottle up past hurts and are often told 'real men don't clue'.

"One of the things I did through my work was attend an anti-patriarchy type training course looking at the development of patriarchy in Northern Ireland as a result of the Troubles, and that influenced my thinking in terms of some of the content around this book. That stereotypical view of what a man should be like is part of the problem too."

Sue Divin's first novel, Guard Your Heart, is shortlisted for the prestigious Yoto Carnegie Medal

She also confesses that the internet has helped with research into subjects contained in the novel, such as mental health, DNA testing and alopecia.

"I'm sure anyone looking at a writer's Google search history will find the most random collection," she laughs.

Divin's debut young adult novel Guard Your Heart, has earned her a place in the shortlist for the prestigious 2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal, the UK's longest running children's book awards.

Set in Derry in summer 2016, at face value it's a story of forbidden love between two 18-year-olds from opposing religions in Northern Ireland, both born on the day of the Good Friday peace deal. At a deeper level it engages with issues around the legacy of the conflict and the complexity of peace.

The winner, who received a specially commissioned gold medal, £5,000 and £500 worth of books to donate to their local library, will be announced on June 16 at a ceremony at The British Library, but Divin is "just delighted to be going to the party".

"I was blown away when I heard I was one of only eight selected When I realised this was an award of the significance that C.S. Lewis won, I actually found it quite hard to process that I'd been shortlisted. It's extremely rare for a début novel to reach this far in the competition, and it's the only Irish one."

It's not the first accolade she has received for her writing. On World Book Day in March, the Waterside author's novel won the Great Reads Award (Ireland). That award, which aims to highlight new authors and diversify the reading of young adults, is shortlisted by Irish school librarians but voted for exclusively by students.

Divin's powerful and compelling writing on contemporary issues appeals to teens and adults alike, as she has discovered from some very diverse feedback.

"They are definite crossover books. I see it like if you see a film rated age 12, does that mean adults just can't go and see it?" says the 47-year-old mum-of-one.

"As well as workshops with local schools I've spoken to students at the University of Philadelphia and had interest from people in Switzerland using the book as a way to learn about Northern Ireland.

"I even had an email from an elderly couple in their 70s from New Zealand. The wife who was originally from here emigrated to New Zealand to get away from the Troubles and related to the book."

Truth Be Told is published by Macmillan Children's Books and is out now.

Sue Divin together with fellow local authors Byddi Lee and Olivia Fitzsimons will be appearing in Triple Booked, an evening of reading, banter and audience Q&As at Aonach Mhacha (Irish Cultural Centre), Armagh on Saturday April 23. Free tickets from Eventbrite.com/e/276082629577.

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